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Voice of the Client: Hearing the Client Through the Noise

This article originally appeared in Marketing the Law Firm.

Lawyers and law firms are exhorted constantly to listen to the voice of the client! They are told this by the economic engineers who drive the legal profession — General Counsel — on panels, in media interviews and through legal industry surveys. Business development is easy — just listen up, lawyers!

And firms work tirelessly to heed this advice, investing in surveys, and client feedback programs and speaking opportunities and blogs and alumni programs and CLEs. Once information is obtained, law firms and lawyers invest even more to respond to these perceived client needs — creating greater efficiency with artificial intelligence, alternative fee arrangements, innovation, and so on.

At the end of the day, a lot of noise is created in the effort to hear the voice of the client. We propose that while these efficiencies and innovations in law are valuable, the clients keep asking for something different: a lawyer who deeply understands their business and their specific issue — at the time they need it. When push comes to shove — your clients want an expert in a focused, unique and specific problem that may be industry specific.

But don’t take our word it, take theirs. In a 2017 General Counsel Up-At-Night Report of more than 200 general counsel and other in-house legal decision makers, jointly produced and published by Morrison & Forrester and ALM Intelligence, 85% of respondents hire outside counsel for the legal expertise. General counsel want the expert; the lawyer who deeply understands their business, the challenge, and has the expertise from which to draw upon to navigate and resolve their issue. See the graphic below.

Now that we’ve heard the client, where does the opportunity exist to adjust to their needs? For tomorrow’s rainmakers this means securing a stronghold in market by clearly defining an area of expertise and carving out a niche — one of the basic principles of building a sustainable law practice, albeit with increasing importance every day. Long gone are the days of “general practice” law firms and lawyers, where clients call their “trusted advisor” for any legal issue because they know the lawyer will handle the work or figure it out … unless, that is, you are willing to accept lower rates for handling more basic legal work. (This commoditized work will eventually be replaced by alternative legal service providers, like a LegalZoom, but that is a topic for a different article.)

In addition to the benefit of securing a place in an increasingly competitive legal landscape, the value of lawyers carving out a niche extends well beyond its appeal to clients. It enables lawyers to command a higher rate, offering the lawyer the opportunity of sustainable financial success and security. (Remember that 89% of general counsel choose to handle the work in-house when cost and efficiency are key drivers.) A niche practice also makes lawyers more marketable as they consider new opportunities. The BCG Attorney Search 2017 State of the American Lateral Law Firm Legal Market Report revealed that a significant feature of the changing legal job market is the “increasing demand for specialist attorneys and the decreasing demand for generalist attorneys.” Moreover, the marketability of the “quality of an attorney’s ‘niche’ practice area experience” has become more valuable than the quality of their education. (Let’s pause here to that sink in for a minute.)

So for the lawyer who is thinking about their future — a future that includes a sustaining practice of law that will carry the family through the course of a legal career, the future where a they practice with passion the kind of legal work they love (not just what another lawyer shares) — the next generation of lawyers shouldn’t be distracted by the noise but should focus on what is within their control. Establishing an expertise that aligns with a need in the market — carving out a niche — will position lawyers to achieve a sustaining and fulfilling practice of law by responding to the needs of their clients.